Haiku History

Haiku history can be seen as a process of uncovering. When writing haiku, the finished product is often reached through a process of condensing ideas into perfect form.

Historically, the development of the haiku follows a similar pattern. The haiku has not developed from nothing, but has been revealed gradually through an uncovering of more complex poetic forms. The haiku aesthetic, therefore, can be seen as the result of a poetic instinct that has gradually emerged from within similar forms. The haiku, as Kenneth Yasuda puts it, is ‘the crystallized form’ of an aesthetic sense that ‘flows through all Japanese poetry.’


The first collections of haiku came to light during the Genroku period in Japan. This poetry had its origins in the Katauta, a Japanese poetic form that consists of 17 or 19 syllables arranged in three lines of either 5, 7, and 5 or 5, 7, and 7 syllables.

The Katuata was generally considered to be one stanza of a longer question-and-answer structured poem. This longer poem could either be the Mondo or the Sedoka.

The difference is that the Mondo is written by two poets, and the Sedoka by one. As you can see from these examples, the katuata is used to form half of the poem.

Picture is of Samurai Yamana Toyokuni


Why is there no rain the land cries out for water but cannot shed tears?

There will be no rain because you wept times before when there was some rain!

- Juan and Chu


A small boy sees hills then he will make them mountains he will have to climb.

If he can climb them what will he have overcome that he did not make?

- Teagan

Hokku and Renga

It is Shiki who is generally credited with coining the term haiku in an essay he wrote titled ‘Haikai and Haiku’. Haiku is a compression of the term Haikai no ku, which translates as ‘verse of a linked poem.’

However, it is Basho who is recognised for truly establishing the form, which he did by adapting it from the opening stanza of the renga form.

Hokku, is the opening stanza of Renga, and was recognised as a distinct element by Basho, who then made the form more like haiku by placing more of a focus on nature and emphasising the relevance of the hokku as a self-contained poem, rather than just the beginning of a renga.

Buson, Issa and Shiki

Buson helped develop the form by introducing human emotions as a complement to the natural imagery of haiku. Issa contributed a heartfelt simplicity to the developing form, and Shiki introduced witticism and detached objectivity to the haiku.

Here ends the haiku history of the classical Japanese haiku, and begins the haiku poetics of the modern world. The haiku of course eventually travelled west, through the haiku-inspired verse of poets like Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens.

Rexroth, Blyth and the like Kerouac then popularised the form and pioneered a haiku movement in the west that follows this haiku history.

Painting is titled Sengyo, by Yosa Buson

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